Politics & Government

Federal workers got SC unemployment during shutdown. Now, they have to pay it back

Supporters for federal workers rally at Columbia airport

Tangela Graves has worked at a federal prison for more than a month without pay. Hear her point of view on what needs to be done next.
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Tangela Graves has worked at a federal prison for more than a month without pay. Hear her point of view on what needs to be done next.

During the 35-day government shutdown, hundreds of federal employees in South Carolina who went without pay filed unemployment claims with the state.

Now that the shutdown is over, those workers will be getting back pay. As a result, they will have to pay back that unemployment money.

The S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce has informed federal workers they will need to repay any money they collected from that agency before the government reopened Friday, said spokeswoman Dorothy Weaver.

“Unemployment insurance is for individuals who have lost work through no fault of their own,” Weaver said. “Since the federal workers, technically, did not lose their employment, now that they are back to work, they will have to repay the funds that helped them through their furlough.”

In these situations, some employers may make arrangements with employees to repay the unemployment money. “If they do not, our agency can set up a payment plan,” Weaver said.

As of Thursday, the last full day of the shutdown, 350 federal employees had requested unemployment benefits in South Carolina. Depending on their work experience, those claims could average a total of $90,000 a week, up to a maximum of $114,000.

Federal employees in affected departments missed two full paychecks this month, leaving many of them to turn to food pantries to keep their families fed.

Allen Rawlins, an air traffic controller at the Florence airport, said he was told federal workers would get three separate checks over the next two weeks to make up for the lost pay — a strategy to help employees avoid a tax penalty on a larger than average pay day.

Because the shutdown hit over the Christmas, New Year’s and Martin Luther King Jr. holidays, “all of our holiday pay will be in the final check,” Rawlins said.

Like many workers deemed “essential,” air traffic controllers had to continue working to keep planes in the air during the shutdown. They will get back pay thanks to a short-term, three-week funding agreement passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump last Friday.

Some 800,000 federal employees across the country went without pay during the shutdown.

Some federal workers furloughed due to shutdown protested near Lindsay Graham's Columbia office.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.